Seriously Asian: Durian

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I decided to talk about durian for Seriously Asian rather than The Nasty Bits because durian already has such a terrible reputation as a repugnant food, and even discussing it in a column intended to loosen people's inhibitions about what is nasty seemed wrong. Besides which, I'd just finished talking about the gingko nut, another sort of flesh, pulpy thing that smells like dog excrement or Camembert, depending on who you ask.

Durian, that infamously smelly fruit native to parts of Southeast Asia and a cousin to jackfruit, is loved and reviled for what it is. The odor of cheese, onion, rotting flesh, roasted almonds, skunk: all of these sensory experiences, discrete and completely unlike, have been used in an attempt to describe durian.

Depending on which type you eat, and its ripeness, you may be experiencing something much milder than the more noxious varieties out there I've eaten durian so smelly that other people in the room have insisted that I step outside to finish my treat, and durian so mild that it barely tastes like durian.

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Its texture is slightly easier to nail down: custardy and foamy, there is nothing quite like durian flesh. Even here, though, that are variations in both consistency and ripeness: Some like the flesh when it is firmer, and some like it so ripe that it oozes every which way when disturbed.

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Though durian is often used in smoothies, cakes, and desserts, I can't think of a better dessert than an entire pod of unadulterated durian flesh. It's already soft and foamy like a custard or a souffle, and garnishes like sugar, coconut milk, and so forth only distract from the complexity of the fruit itself. Don't be deterred by its spiny exterior: The shell is surprising easy to pierce and cut with a knife, and large pods of the flesh come out without much prying.

Best of all, the range of smell and texture simply means that, in terms of eating enjoyment, you have a lot a freedom. If you're the kind of eater who asks for the most offensive cheese from the counter, then you may enjoy the odors of a riper, pungent variety of durian. If you want to start with something mild, shop for a durian at your Asian market that isn't giving off fumes within a ten foot radius. Cracks in the shell are often an indication of ripeness, so stick to a durian that's still contained if you want less-ripened flesh.

The bottom line: there's no wrong way to love a durian.